Tag Archives: memory

What Now?: Sicilian sonnet

What now? Is there sufficient cause for reaching
beyond the edge of darkness? Will we find
ourselves subjected to more endless preaching?
Are we fit students for any new teaching?

And what good any lesson merely bleaching
the past of any stains we’ve left behind,
or drowning out the crows and vultures screeching
on ancient battlefields we’ve tilled, or mined?

Out there, far past the edge of our remembrance,
is there a quiet place to stop and think,
not quite Valhalla or fabled Olympus

but just a stretch of nothing, where the dance
is still, and with just cool water there to drink,
we fade into a single, silent us?

31 MAY 2017

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Shape the Now: cyrch a chwta

It’s yesterday we cling to,
that we prefer to what’s new,
choosing safety, not what’s true:
life goes on, us with it too.
It has no rules; memories do,
and don’t shift the world and skew
the facts used to shape the Now,
which somehow is left to you.

17 FEB 2017

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4. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted

I think it goes without saying that my life has been full of books. But reading goes beyond literature, doesn’t it? Newspapers, magazines, comic books, bumper stickers, cereal boxes, email, blog posts, novels, short stories, poetry, music scores, instruction manuals, they all come in formats other than what we traditionally call books. And honestly, most of it I have forgotten. Except, as they say, you never forget anything; it’s only misfiled. My archive storage room must be packed to the gills.

As far as being slow-witted. Well, I suspect that in myself, and also in Montaigne, the appearance of slow-wittedness is more a propos. In the same way that Jack Benny worked extremely hard, with no small amount of technical ability, to appear as a horribly bad violinist, I believe the trick here as it applies to living well is to not appear quick-witted, that is, to not be the first to interject with a barbed comment, to be slow to engage in sarcasm or irony – since they are so often, particularly in print, misconstrued and/or deliberately misinterpreted. I cannot remember where I read it now, but somewhere two rules of true victory were imparted to me: first, to understand that you cannot understand everything, and second, that being right is the most effective way to lose an argument. It is enough, I think, to be perceived as dark, pessimistic and peevish, simply for insisting upon a doctrine of personal responsibility. To be completely without friends, all that is required is adding a sharp tongue and speaking with irony or sarcasm about those sacred cows that others find dear, and about which they permit no humor or levity. The obvious targets here are government, politics, religion, morality, life’s purpose, the sanctity of the home, work or marriage, and other life and death issues about which people are so often willing to extemporize or sermonize, and find it extremely difficult to remain objective.

I recommend reading. I would go so far as to say that if by the end of the third grade, you do not love to read – not merely to complete assignments, but to gain access to knowledge and ideas beyond those provided in the “nurture” that surrounds you – your lot in life will be more unpleasant and boring than necessary. Reading gives perspective, no less than physical traveling. Both take you out of your comfort zone – if you read or travel well. And perspective is essential to understanding both yourself and the world in which you exist. Of course, some will say that a single book, like the Christian Bible, is sufficient unto itself as a sole reading subject. In my experience, no worldview than cannot stand being seen from multiple angles, that cannot manage scrutiny from external, non-affiliated sources, is capable of free-standing.
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Each thing that starts must have an end

Each thing that starts must have an end; for every wax there is a wend that once begun, moves to its finish. Every birth has “bury” in it.

My earliest memory is of walking down the street beside my mother, who is pushing my brother in a stroller. It is a shady oak-lined street, which puts the place probably on Oakdale Boulevard in Pleasant Ridge, Michigan, and the time somewhere between 1966 and 1968. A pleasant memory, but not particularly instructive. We lived in a house on Oakdale for a few years before moving to a much larger house on Ridge Road. There are pictures of activities in the back yard at Oakdale, but not any real memory of those events. My first actual memories of things happening, and things being done, are at and around Ridge Road. Bicycling, tennis, basketball, sandboxes, pole climbing attempts, the huge Dutch Elm tree (and talk about Dutch Elm disease) in the lot corner, surrounded by jack-in-the-pulpits and other shade plants. The swimming pool (and swimming lessons) across the street. The Detroit Zoo (and the revolutionary train that ran through the park), and Theodore Roosevelt Elementary just a few blocks down the road – in opposite directions.

Some Stoic philosophers imagined life as an endless cycle, to be infinitely lived over and over again. In contrast to the Eastern idea of reincarnation, where each successive life leads up or down the ladder of enlightened beings or states based on your conduct in the present, this Stoic idea suggests that we live the same life, exactly the same, over and over again. This of course is a pleasant thought if you believe your life a good one – and less pleasant should you believe otherwise. It also magnifies the importance of every single moment, act, and thought – because you will be repeating it, ad infinitum or ad nauseum, in exactly the same way each time through. There are no little things. Like minor cosmetic errors in a computer program, they don’t have much impact individually. But when considered a thousand, ten thousand, or a million-fold, their sheer volume causes as much risk as a single high severity show stopper application flaw. Each decision, each considered idea that leads to action, gains a certain gravitas that it lacks if considered in the context of a single life. Another Stoic idea is to imagine yourself at the edge of death and consider at that moment, as you prepare to expire, whether your life has been well lived. If yes, you can depart, like Montaigne interprets Seneca, as a satisfied dinner guest leaving well-fed and happy. If no, then the loss of your life is of little consequence anyway, as you obviously had no idea what to do with it. A useful exercise, of course, before your actual moment of death so you have time to remedy your failings and get on with the business of living well.

In these two Stoic scenarios, memory serves a completely different purpose. In the first, where everything is to be lived over and over again, memory seems much less important. After all, you’re going to be living the exact same life over and over again, right or wrong, left or right, up or down. In the true spirit of alma fati, what will be, will be, and remembering one’s mistakes or victories doesn’t really matter all that much, because changing one for the other isn’t any option. In the second scenario, the ability to remember one’s failings and strengths in detail is much more important. After all, if you’re going to correct a wrongness, or reinforce a rightness, in order to continue, or return to, living in plumb with the universe, it seems essential that you recognize and understand a thing for what it is, in its infinite complexity.

I suspect that the reality is somewhere in between. All cultures, at some point or another in their attempt to achieve “enlightenment” or at least to alleviate the boredom and monotony of suffering and pain, suggest that the answer lies in simply paying attention. Call it mindfulness, devotion, atonement (at-one-ment), attention (at-tension), or any other cultural buzzword of the moment; it all boils down to being aware of what is actually happening versus what seems to be happening. Of course, that eliminates the idea of writing one’s memoirs altogether, because it requires absolutely living in this moment, and not wasting the time of a single second imagining actual or perceived past events. How all this reflection leads to enlightenment at all is of course subject to debate. Aleister Crowley quipped that if you loved life, you would not waste a single moment of time, that being the only actual measure of life we had. He however spent a great deal of time pondering signs and portents of the past, and scribbling endless polemics that it would seem could not have done anything but consumed vast quantities of his time – and ultimately, if you can stand to follow along throughout his writings, taught him little or nothing about actually living in any kind of balance or harmony with the world around him.

I like believing that my own life has been a tight rope act of sorts, and while my physical balance is horrendous – due I think to numerous inner ear infections growing up – that my mental or spiritual balance has over the course of my life greatly improved. Believing it and making it so, of course, are different things. The accumulated evidence, at least as I recall it, points to a much less glorious conclusion.

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The wise men all say look within

The wise men all say look within; and still, we focus outward. Is it because we’re deaf, or stupid? Maybe we’re just cowards.

In so many ways, our memories are like poetry: distillations of images that if given too much solid detail become stodgy, boring and definitely unmusical. Show, don’t tell; as if in telling too much, you’re actually hiding behind an edifice of words and not revealing the soft, white underbelly everyone suspects is there.

And how far back does a really accurate memory go? How useful is it to remember everything in detail? If a manic-depressive were to actually appreciate while at one end of the spectrum the absolute height or depth of the opposite cycle, how even keeled they might become! Like the mystic story of the king who wished to have something to both sober him when he felt too happy, and intoxicate him when he felt too dry, and was eventually given a trinket inscribed “this too shall pass”. Is there REALLY a middle way?

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Memory is the Greatest Weapon

Memory is the greatest weapon in love’s mad arsenal.

I wrote that line when I was 26 years old. It still rings true – although as I get older it seems often it is a weapon for good, a defensive rather than offensive tool. Like vision, which has so many words related to falsehood – illusion, deception, misperception, memory is often associated with failure or more accurately, betrayal. Our memory of events, people, ourselves over time is the only database we truly have to catalog and create, of out some great Aristotaliatarian urge for order, the meaning of our lives; that is to say, the context of what we perceive to be our living – or as RD Laing put it, our “experience of living”.

It may be that the failing of our memory as we age, rather than a curse, is an infinite blessing. Much like the edges of a scene are washed out and lost as a light is brought closer and closer to it, perhaps as we approach nearer and nearer to the infinite we, like a cosmological deer caught in the headlights, lose our periphery as a mechanism for focusing us on what’s next, what’s beyond: a re-merging or reemerging with the light of pure energy. It’s an idea, anyway. It explains end-of-life lapses, maybe, but does it justify what seems to be a complete forgetting of what it means to be young, to feel free to make mistakes, to imagine oneself ten feet high and bulletproof (or conversely, to lack enough imagination to see negative outcomes as well as ephemeral pipe dreams) – that bitter cynicism that seems to latch onto us when we see our children grow up, when the salary increases don’t come, when the first world problems of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and bad cholesterol turn our muscle to fat, our burning young blood to sludge, and our thoughts to preservation instead of rebellion? Winston Churchill quipped, “If you’re young and conservative, you have no heart. If you’re old and liberal, you have no brains.” Isn’t there a middle ground? More importantly, if in fact you become conservative, shouldn’t part of that stewardship be to preserve (as in keep alive, not as in pickling) the ideas, energy, and purpose of one’s own youth? To at least, remember it as a necessary force in getting you to your current state?

Remembering one’s life, however, requires something a little more than simple memory, especially if that memory is limited to dates and times and places, a rote classification like that required in learning history in school. Writing that kind of history requires the author to be equal parts archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, philosopher, and demagogue. Because what’s important to a history, we are always taught, is the key milestones, decisions, and events – the turning points in a journey. What’s important to your own life, I suppose, is where those milestones, decisions, and events lead. But what’s interesting to anyone at all is none of those things. It’s the journey we want to hear about – the means, not the ends.

Of course, this flies in the face of everything we know about success, about what makes it and what it isn’t. Success, so many of us think, particularly in the West, is the bottom line. The balance sheet. The physical (and far too often) monetary legacy. An inheritance that can be passed on without too much bother, or effort, on the part of the beneficiaries. Sounds cold and unfeeling. Perhaps it is. But since the only way to pass on the intangibles is to share their experience, so that they become part of the beneficiary’s consciousness and history as well.

And for that, the best a personal history can do is make suggestions, offer clues, share if not the physical roadmap from here to there, then at least the names of the shops where such maps may be sought.

Memory is both an ally and adversary, both mirror and shadow. We have a tendency to remember ourselves as either more heroic, or more absolutely ordinary, than the reality of ourselves experienced by others at the time – our contemporaries, or people who existed (and perhaps still exist) in a shared, same time and space. It’s easy enough to cherry pick the highlights, after all, from the advantage of hindsight – when we are perhaps self-satisfied enough to put a blithe label on success and failure. In this sense, we are like self-examining anthropologists (which is by the very act of crossing the line between the Observer and Observed, an extreme breach of anthropological etiquette). When we look back and examine the artifact (i.e., artificial fact) of a past experience, there is a choice to either apply the worldview we have now, or imagine a remembrance of our worldview then, and interpret the motivation, action, and outcome of our history accordingly. Our interpretation then casts us as hero or villain, genius or idiot, by the yardstick of today only. There is never a clear connection between the fool that was and the fool that is. To make that connection requires a humility that an autobiographer lacks in the first place. You cannot, after all, trace the evolution of the intangible without using a tangible paradigm. And even those paradigms have their limitations – as my wife demanded in elementary school when told there were only three undefined terms (in geometry), the point, line and plane, “Define love.”

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A flame in darkness

It does no good to mourn one candle
when its flame goes out;
nor to try to keep it lit
when its wax melts away.

It does no good to sit in darkness
thinking of past light;
nor to imagine some bright place
where bulbs go to retire.

Each source is only one of many;
when one flame expires,
you must tend to the others
if you would have light at all.

The memory of dead lights won’t fade,
if they were truly yours;
they burn somewhere for someone else
if they once burned at all.

But those lights that are left behind
will fade out, if ignored;
if you would truly fight the darkness,
feed what fires remain.

29 APR 2013

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